Rival French conservatives clash in televised debate

Hard-right Republican leader and French prime minister in icy 20-minute exchange

French prime minister Edouard Philippe (R) shakes hands with French right-wing Les Republicains  party president Laurent Wauquiez, ahead of the debate on  Thursday. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt

French prime minister Edouard Philippe (R) shakes hands with French right-wing Les Republicains party president Laurent Wauquiez, ahead of the debate on Thursday. Photograph: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt

 

The second generation of rival French conservatives is personified by the hard-right leader of Les Républicains (LR), Laurent Wauquiez, and the moderate, pro-European prime minister, Edouard Philippe.

Wauquiez is a protégé of the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, while Philippe is close to the former prime minister Alain Juppé.

The two conservative leaders faced off in a televised debate on Thursday night, after promotion worthy of a boxing match. Their 20-minute exchange was icy, and marked by disdain on both sides. “You have a problem with truth,” Philippe told Wauquiez. “And you have a problem with reality,” Wauqiez snapped back.

Wauquiez expelled Philippe from LR last year, for working with President Emmanuel Macron. The strong current of pro-Juppé, pro-EU conservatives who remain within LR are increasingly critical of Wauquiez.

Like Fine Gael, LR belongs to the European People’s Party, the conservative group in the European Parliament. After MEPs sanctioned the Hungarian nationalist leader Viktor Orban earlier this month, Wauquiez was criticised for coming to Orban’s defence. “It’s wrong to push Orban out of Europe, ” Wauquiez said, adding that Orban’s Fidesz party “belongs in the EPP”.

Untenable

Like Orban, Wauquiez is obsessed with immigration, which has reached “untenable” levels in France, he said. The LR leader claimed France was “one of the EU countries receiving the most refugees today”.

France was a distant second, behind Germany, in 2017, with 40,575 migrants, compared to 325,370 in Germany, according to Eurostat figures. And the French rate of 605 migrants per million inhabitants is well below the EU average of 1050.

Wauquiez demanded that prime minister Philippe set a ceiling on the number of migrants admitted each year, end jus soli, which gives people born in France the right to citizenship, unless their parents are in the country legally, and end all state-sponsored medical care for migrants, except in emergencies. Philippe refused.

When Wauquiez said France should model its immigration policy on that of Canada and Australia, Philippe retorted: “You may have noticed that the geographical situation of Australia and Canada is not the same as France’s.”

Philippe fulfilled his usual role of damage limitation on Macron’s behalf. Macron came from the socialist left and Philippe from the Gaullist right, but the two men have worked smoothly and efficiently together. Macron is accused of hauteur. Philippe is humble. He denied rumours that he wants to stand for mayor of Paris, but admitted to sometimes missing his old job as mayor of Le Havre.

The interior minister Gérard Collomb created a flutter this week when Le Figaro published remarks he made at a lunch with journalists. The only people who could still talk to Macron were those who were there from the beginning, Collomb said. “And pretty soon he won’t be able to stand me anymore. But if everybody lies down in front of him, he’ll end up alone. The Élysée isolates people.”

‘Benalla affair’

Philippe said he has learned to work well with Macron, though he would not say he’s a friend. “The longer I am prime minister, the more I see what it’s like to be president ... I confirm that I do not lie down ... Of course one can talk to the president.”

The “Benalla affair”, in which Macron’s chief bodyguard was filmed beating up protesters at a May Day rally, also resurfaced this week, when the investigative website Mediapart published a photograph of Alexandre Benalla holding a Glock pistol in a restaurant in Poitou, six months before he obtained a weapons permit.

Again, Philippe defended Macron. “This was not an affair of state,” the prime minister said. “It had nothing to do with supposed organisation at the highest levels. It was just a regrettable, individual affair.”

Defended Macron

Macron’s remark to a 25-year-old unemployed gardener who visited the Élysée on “heritage day”, when government buildings are open to the public, also made headlines this month. Hotels and restaurants cannot recruit enough workers to fill positions, Macron said. “You want work? If I cross the street, I can find work for you.”

Philippe defended Macron. “I don’t think he misspoke at all. I believe there was in fact a job available across the street, that the young man got a lot of job offers, and that he found a job.”

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